Emma Burnell: Government should support London’s pantomimes, a life force for all our theatres

Emma Burnell: Government should support London’s pantomimes, a life force for all our theatres

The glory of attending a pantomime? The silliness, the fun, the sheer joy? 

It’s behind you! 

Well, let’s hope not. 

Pantomime is sometimes sneered at by those who do not view it as “proper” theatre. But without panto, so much else that happens in our city’s theatres wouldn’t be possible. It is this most traditional of art forms that enables theatres to experiment during the rest of the year. 

It’s not just the London Palladium that stages them. Fringe theatres across London put on pantos for the same reason – they bring in much needed revenue just before the slow period of January to March, building up a financial cushion for theatres of all sizes to develop more experimental works. Pantos bring in punters. People who wouldn’t otherwise go to the theatre flock to be amused at what the dames are getting up to. Instead of parents getting babysitters, they take the kids to the show, filling up seats. London pantomime has also blossomed into a huge range of products for all tastes, ages and place. 

Many theatres outside of the West End have done incredible work at opening up panto to more diverse audiences. The Hackney Empire, for example, makes sure that its famous pantos (see photo) reflect and communicate with the BAME community it is situated in. This brings new audiences to theatres and creates communal bonds. You get adult panto, burlesque panto and queer panto – everyone enjoying and subverting the well know tropes of the original product (itself always balancing a fine line between being risqué and child-friendly). 

If London pantos don’t happen this year, it will hurt regional theatres too. A lot of our most popular shows are honed and polished by touring theatres outside the capital. London may be theatre’s beating heart, but that heart is fed by an ecosystem of arteries that spread across the country. The two things are co-dependent.

Let’s also consider what pantomimes bring to the children who see them. This is often a child’s first experience of the theatre. And much as some actors, writers and snobby critics might want you to think differently, the experience of going to the theatre is about a lot more than the action on the stage. The glamour of gold paint and velvet seats, the joy of the interval ice cream and the intensity of being part of a crowd are all part of the joy of theatre.

And there is enormous skill in what happens on stage to create long-remembered experiences. Children are brought into the act of collusion that is at the heart of theatre, as they shout “look behind you” at a character who remains brilliantly, wonderfully oblivious. I’ve watched children screaming to fever pitch at these moments as incredibly skilful performers work them up into rapturous frenzy. These moments create lifelong theatre lovers – the audiences of the future. 

Acting is a famously insecure profession, but there has always been work in panto at Christmas – reasonably well-guaranteed and pretty well paid. Many people who were unable to take advantage of furlough schemes because of their self-employed or jobbing status will miss out on this season of work too – a serious blow at the end of a hard year. 

It may be that it won’t be safe for theatres to operate at full capacity this year, but if we want there to be a generation of theatre lovers to come, it is essential that the government steps in at all levels. The “eat out to help out” vouchers are supporting the restaurant industry. London theatres and the industry that feeds it deserve the same degree of help. The government should be offering panto grants to theatres able to put these shows on at a safe social distance so that least some kids can enjoy this experience. Where that isn’t possible, it should be supporting the theatre the industry in other ways.

Panto’s loss to the wider theatre industry isn’t a joke. The government’s response to its plight so far is laughable. Wouldn’t it be nice for London’s vital cultural industries if Oliver Dowden turned round now and said “Oh no it isn’t”?

Emma Burnell is a freelance writer and the person behind Political Human. Follow her on Twitter

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Categories: Culture

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